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Tyler Jones: Setting The Record Straight On Confederate Flag’s Removal

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TRUTH VERSUS MYTH …

By TYLER JONES || It’s been over two years now since the South Carolina legislature removed the Confederate Flag from the state house grounds, a result of 9 people being murdered in a black church in Charleston at the hands of a White Supremacist. History seems to always get rewritten over time, details are exaggerated, and often times the wrong people get credit for things they didn’t do. I’m seeing it more and more with the revisionist accounts of how the confederate flag came down in South Carolina and I believe it’s time to set the record straight.

For two years I have watched the news media give Nikki Haley credit for bringing down the flag, as if it was a new idea proposed by a young, female, minority Republican governor. And, had that been the case, she would have indeed deserved the credit. But it wasn’t a new idea, and it wasn’t her idea. And the real story is much more complicated than anyone cares to remember.

During the violent protests in Charlottesville, I saw former South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer on CNN say this about the Confederate Flag in South Carolina: “it was the Democrats who put it up and Republicans who took it down.” He went on to say how a Republican Governor, Nikki Haley, led the way. Everyone on CNN sat there, nodding in agreement, and praised Nikki Haley as some sort of visionary.

I have gone out of my way not to “correct the record” on this issue for two years because I frankly didn’t care who got the credit for the flag coming down, as long as it came down. But I can see how the history is being rewritten before our eyes and I believe it is my responsibility to give an accurate account of what really happened, from someone who was actually there.

I worked at the South Carolina legislature for the better part of eight years, from 2009 to 2017. First as Executive Director of the House Democratic Caucus, then as senior adviser and spokesman for the House Democratic Leader. When I arrived in Columbia in 2009, the confederate flag was considered an old issue, and mostly a dead issue. Democrats fought like hell for years to get the flag taken down off the state house dome. And in 2000, thanks to the leadership of a new Democratic Governor, Jim Hodges, the flag was removed from atop the dome. Unfortunately, the only way to get that done was through a compromise in the legislature that put a new confederate flag on a bronze flag pole right smack-dab in front of the state house, in arguably a more prominent position than atop the dome. The day the new flag went up, the Associated Press reported flag supporters chanting, “Off the dome and in your face!” I was still in high school in North Carolina when that happened, but few in the legislature nine years later thought there was any possibility of that flag ever coming off the state house grounds.

But that didn’t stop my bosses, legislative Democrats, from raising the issue year after year with their Republican colleagues, who wanted nothing to do with it. You see, Republicans in South Carolina were still patting themselves on the back from 2000, where they took the flag from one area, and put it in a slightly different area where even more people could see it. In fact, Nikki Haley pledged to never touch the confederate flag in an interview with the Sons of Confederate Veterans when she was running for governor in 2010. In 2014, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen and his Lieutenant Governor candidate Bakari Sellers held a press conference at the site of the confederate flag on the state house grounds, calling for its removal once and for all. It made statewide news and renewed the debate about the 2000 compromise and whether or not it should be revisited. But in the GOP-dominated legislature, it was laughed off or ignored. No one was going to touch it. In fact, Nikki Haley said she “respected” the 2000 compromise and called her then-rival Senator Sheheen “irresponsible” for bringing up the issue at all. Suffice it to say, Republicans had zero intention of ever reviving the issue. A few months later, it would be Vincent Sheheen who would introduce the bill that would ultimately bring down the flag for good. More on that later.

I’ve never told anyone what I’m about to write, about how I found out about the shooting at Mother Emanuel on June 17, 2015. But I believe it brings context to the real history that rarely gets told about the events surrounding the confederate flag debate in South Carolina.

Shortly after 9:00 pm on June 17, 2015, I started to see the reports on Twitter of a shooting at a church in downtown Charleston. A few minutes later, someone tweeted it was Emanuel AME. My heart sank. “That’s Clem’s church,” I thought. Of course, I was referring to Senator Clementa Pinckney – who I had literally seen just hours before leaving the state house in Columbia. Shortly thereafter I received a call on my cell phone from a reporter from a local newspaper in town, who I will not name. He was at the scene and told me that Clem was in the church. At this point the news was speculating that there were deaths but still no mention of Clem. I told the reporter to call me back if he learned anything new. A few minutes later I got another call from the same reporter who uttered the words that I will never, ever forget – “Clem’s dead.”

I had known Senator Pinckney, or “Clem,” for 6 or 7 years, and I’d be guilty of rewriting my own history if I said we were particularly close. We weren’t. I was a Democratic staffer who lived in Charleston and he was a senator from Charleston, so we inevitably ran in the same circles, you could say. We would chat at the state house from time to time. I’d ask him about his church – he loved his church so much – and his kids – and it would always bring a smile to his face and he would update me on the latest news of both. I must admit, I enjoyed just hearing Clem talk. His deep, booming voice commanded any room he was in. But it wasn’t loud. It wasn’t intimidating. It was a mixture of Barry White and Martin Luther King Jr. It was thunderous yet eloquent and soothing. Clem would call me from time to time, usually to ask me to pass along a message to my boss, the House Minority Leader, or to talk about some Charleston issue. He was one of those people you would do anything for out of deep respect. The last in-depth conversation I had with Clem was about how Republicans were challenging his residency and attempting to get him kicked off the ballot in 2012. You see, Clem lived in Ridgeland but preached 75 miles away in Charleston. Clem won the challenge and continued speaking out on issues like Medicaid Expansion, voting rights – and yes, the confederate flag.

After getting the news about Clem’s death, I didn’t have time to stop and let it settle in my brain. I had 46 bosses in the House who served with Clem and deserved to know the news. As I began to let people know, I realized that literally no one knew. I had to deliver this incredibly tragic news to people – that their friend and colleague had just been murdered in cold blood. Each one of them handled it differently. Some were silent, some cried, most were confused and some were downright angry. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

I’ll never know why that reporter called me, of all people, to give me the news about Clem. But whether I was the first to know, or one of the first to know, it gave me a unique perspective on making sure the events surrounding the shooting – and the removal of the flag – are told accurately and honestly. Clem deserves that.

The next 24 hours were a whirlwind. It seemed like the national media was set up in downtown Charleston within minutes. The next day, the heat was blistering as I accompanied my boss, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, to speak to the media, who were lined up down Calhoun Street, just a block away from the church. Facts were starting to trickle in about Dylann Roof, who was captured in North Carolina the day after the shooting. The interviews quickly went from questions about Clem and the victims – to the question on everyone’s mind, “Now What?” Where do we go from here? What do we do? As we learned more and more about the shooter, it was clear this was an act of racism against African-Americans. As soon as the picture surfaced of Dylann Roof holding a confederate flag, I knew where the debate was going.

Over the next couple of days, Democrats began to talk internally about bringing down the flag. It was no longer a political conversation – it was a moral one. How could anyone in good conscience defend that flag anymore? The media began to focus on the issue more and more and state elected officials began fielding questions about it on national television. It was evident very quickly that there was no answer other than “the flag should come down” that would play well on national TV. Democrats began reaching out to some of the more moderate members of the GOP caucus to implore them to come out for the removal of the flag. Most didn’t want to touch it – or at least be the first to touch it – but two GOP members really stepped up and showed tremendous leadership: Now-former Rep. Doug Brannon of Spartanburg, who probably lost his seat because of his vote to remove the flag, and Rep. Gary Clary of Clemson. They both announced on national television that they now supported the removal of the flag and would co-sponsor legislation to do it. This was truly groundbreaking. And even though every member of the Democratic caucus in both the House and Senate supported the removal of the flag, the fact that two Republicans were now in favor of its removal meant real progress. More and more Republicans began to cautiously come out in favor of its removal over the next couple of days to the point where Democrats thought we might be able to accomplish our long-held goal. We would be back in session in about a week to pass the budget and we could conceivably bring up the issue and hold a vote then.

The part of this historic time that is often forgotten is that the 2016 presidential primary was in full swing. There were over a dozen Republican candidates running and suddenly all of them were being asked their position on the confederate flag in South Carolina, a key early primary state. Historically this had been an issue Republicans wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Their ‘go-to’ line was it was a state issue and they respected the compromise of 2000. After the shooting, they could no longer get away with that line (even though they tried).

As a political professional, I saw the writing on the wall. This was going to be a major PR crisis for the GOP. The world was watching and their presidential hopefuls were unable or unwilling to call for the removal of a flag that was heralded by a White Supremacist who killed 9 black people in a church in the south. When reports surfaced that RNC chairman Reince Priebus was flying to Columbia to meet with Governor Haley, it was obvious what was happening. If there was anyone who could get away with reversing course on the flag issue in the Republican Party, it was the term-limited governor, who just happened to be one of the few minorities in the modern-day Republican Party. If she called on its removal, then the presidential candidates could simply “support her decision” and move past this very sticky issue. Well, lo-and-behold, that’s exactly what happened.

I try not to question people’s motives. And I have absolutely no idea what’s in Nikki Haley’s heart. But I was born during the week, just not last week. This whole reversal had the worst political stench I’d smelled in years – maybe ever. To hear Nikki Haley speak on this issue, you would have thought she always supported the removal of the flag. Suddenly, she believes “it should have never been there” in the first place. On the Monday after the shooting, Nikki Haley held a press conference to announce her support for the removal of the confederate flag. And who was standing right behind her, directly in the shot, but RNC chairman Reince Priebus. She was flanked by almost every Republican from the congressional delegation and lots and lots of Democrats. But almost none with a better position in the camera shot than Priebus. And like clockwork, GOP presidential candidates released statements supporting Nikki Haley’s decision, praising her leadership and vision. Forget the fact that the week prior, she held the exact opposite position; she was now a visionary.

The purpose of this writing is not to criticize Nikki Haley. Lots of people come around on issues they haven’t always supported. The purpose of this writing is to give an accurate portrayal of what actually happened. And what actually happened was the Republican leadership made a “CYA” decision to remove the confederate flag only after 9 people were killed in cold blood.

The bill to remove the flag originated in the senate with, guess who, Senator Vincent Sheheen as the lead sponsor. If the flag was going to come down, Haley would have to sign a bill introduced by her 2010 and 2014 opponent, who she called “irresponsible” for calling for the removal of the flag just months earlier. Talk about a bitter pill to swallow.

It passed the Senate, a body in which Clementa Pinckney served in for many years, relatively easily. The real battle was in the House.

I could write a book on the series of events that took place over the next couple of days as the bill came over to the House. But I’ll simply give some very brief Cliff’s Notes.

My boss, Todd Rutherford, immediately began receiving death threats in our office. What a way to start the week. Every media outlet in the world, yes the world, was now calling our statehouse their headquarters. And for the first time in my entire tenure at the legislature, House Democrats were about to lead on an issue, and the entire world was our audience. If we didn’t drive this train, and drive it perfectly, the bill would die and the flag would remain. We held the most important caucus meeting in our history that Tuesday morning to discuss our strategy. We knew Republicans would try to ‘filibuster-by-amendment’ and we had to demand our members vote against all amendments. You see, if just one amendment passed, no matter how innocent or reasonable it was, the bill would have to go back to the senate. This would delay the process, and probably kill the bill. Republicans talked openly about how the attention span of the average voter was so short, that if they could just get this bill back to the senate, it could be weeks or months before we ever got to it again. And at that point, no one would care anymore. But our caucus was united and determined to get this done that day.

We held a press conference to say we would not be voting for any amendments. We needed a ‘clean bill.’ After all, the bill was simple. The flag would come down and be stored in an appropriate place – a museum.

As expected, Republicans began to introduce dozens of amendments to the bill. An amendment to put the removal of the flag on the ballot as a referendum; an amendment to put up a ‘different’ confederate flag; you name it – they introduced it. Democrats held strong and so did about half the Republican caucus – to their credit. Passionate speech after passionate speech was given by members of both parties, and we were getting close to the end of the process. An innocuous amendment to increase the funding for the Confederate Relic Room, where the flag would be stored, was introduced and failed by only 1 vote – 60 to 60. Pro-flag Republicans quickly began whipping votes in order to get that passed to ultimately kill the bill.

But once again, it was Democrats who stepped up to solve the problem. Democratic Rep. Russell Ott, a farmer from St. Matthews, introduced a House Resolution to incorporate the language from the amendment to increase funding for the Confederate Relic Room so that it would be separate from the flag bill, thus maintaining the bill’s “clean” status. But Republicans voted against it. We were furious. It was clear that the intention wasn’t to increase funding for the CRR, it was to delay or kill the bill. Democratic leadership met with Republican leadership in the Speaker’s office for several minutes to try and break the impasse. I won’t go into what was said in that meeting, but let’s just say you can’t say much of it on television. It was hot. We were really angry.

The hour was getting late and millions – yes millions – of people were tuned in on the internet to watch the House debate. Were Republicans really going to pull this stunt in front of the entire world?

Finally, they came to their senses. They agreed to pull their amendment and accept the compromise proposed by Rep. Ott. The bill was going to pass.

After the final vote, it was pure elation among Democrats on the floor. Everyone was hugging, many were crying, and most were thinking about our fallen colleague who helped muscle this bill through from heaven.

To her credit, Nikki Haley was steadfast through this entire process. She wanted a clean bill and she helped us get it. Throughout the House debate, she would call in certain Republican members to her office downstairs to lobby them to stop voting for amendments. Her work helped tremendously and I, and most Democrats, will forever be grateful to her for that.

Of course, the rest is history. The flag came down over 50 years after it went up as a symbol of protest against civil rights.

As I watched the events unfold in Charlottesville, I was reminded of South Carolina’s confrontation with hate and bigotry two years ago. And as the debate continues over what to do about monuments and statues, it has never been more important than now to be truthful and contextual about our history. It’s never black and white; there’s nuance and context to everything which always makes it more complicated.

It doesn’t matter who gets the credit for doing great things, but it does matter if history is rewritten to give credit to those who don’t deserve it. And much like history, the confederate flag debate in South Carolina is filled with nuance and context that deserves to be remembered and passed down accurately. The folklore currently being perpetuated for political gain by some on the right is largely mythical. I was incredibly honored to be a part of this process and that’s why I feel so strongly about telling the account the way it deserves to be told. It’s long and extremely complicated, but the truth is always more interesting than the myth.

Tyler Jones is the the founder, president, and chief executive officer of SPEAK Strategic, a political consulting firm based in Columbia, S.C.  His column – reprinted with permission – originally appeared on his firm’s website.

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